The unspoken truths of marriage

Marriage hasn’t changed much

Family was an important construct of society long before we settled down as farmers and but when we started owning properties for the first time, it became more important. We needed to know who was our offspring (and worthy of our wealth) and who wasn’t.

Marriage was created as an economic, political, social arrangement and agreement between two families who wanted to merge. It was their way of saying “we are on the same side now”. The choice of spouse was important to ensure the family one belonged to stayed safe, sane and powerful. The woman and man getting married had very little, if any, say in who, how, when, why they were to marry. Even if they did, their individual desires were considered to be less important than the future of their family line.

We think that marriage has changed a lot over the centuries but it actually hasn’t changed much. Underneath all the layers of concepts we have attached to marriage, such as being in love, having a lifelong partnership, finding the one etc., the biggest purpose marriage serves today is still this economical and social regulation.

This is more apparent in Eastern cultures, as opposed to Western cultures with a strong sense of individualism. A Turkish parent for example, will first ask about the family of your boyfriend when they hear you are in a serious relationship. They will want to meet his family before they give you their blessing to marry. They will see his family as an explanation for who your partner is, and they will want to merge their family name with a “good family” name. Upon your marriage, your parents and the parents of your spouse will become relatives (“dünür”), and they will embark on many joint projects such as the wedding and grandchildren.

Why do we think that marriage has changed a lot?

The first reason is globalization. Western individualism is spreading to the East for example. We also travel the world at rates we had never traveled it before, and this changes how we define “family”. We tie the knot with people whose many cultures and subcultures we may never fully understand. We call friends we really resonate with or love the most “family”. We introduce our newborn baby to her grandparents on the other side of the world on FaceTime. This changes how family looks and feels, making it more expansive and elusive, as well as how marriage looks and feels.

The second reason is the economic independence of individuals. Ayşe Kulin, in her book Foto Sabah Resimleri, tells the story of a 15 year old orphaned girl in a small Turkish village in the 1960s. She is adopted by a rich family, who lets her stay and serve at their house as a maid. Shortly after she reaches puberty, the master of the house rapes her, gets her pregnant, then marries her off to a young lad in the village in an attempt to get rid of her. The story is morbid but the author unexpectedly ends it on a happy note: The young girl, having never had a parent, relative or companion to care for her in her life, finally finds a true companion in her new husband, as well as a place she calls home, and an ability to make choices for herself for the first time as the “lady of her home”.

This is obviously a very sad and extreme example, but marriage back in the day was for everyone a way to start their life as an independent adult. This was clear for women, but even for men, to be married signified an adulthood or a maturity that they didn’t have before. It opened doors to gaining your life, making your own choices and ruling your home.

Today, individuals gain their life, make their choices and rule their homes long before they get married. They matter as individuals, whether they are alone or with partners. So they either get married much later in life, or they don’t get married at all.

The latest statistics on household size in the EU show that in 2017 around one third of households comprised single adults without children. In 2011, single parent families accounted for approximately one sixth of all family units in the EU. And out of all the people living as family nuclei in 2011, unmarried people (registered partnerships, consensual unions and lone parent families) accounted for about one third (28.8 %). Marriage has become something only half of the population (if not less) is engaging with.

The third reason we tend to think marriage has changed a lot is that there actually has been a lot of change, and we don’t realize that those changes have been going around in circles. We have a narrow focus and an aversion towards change, which makes us notice what has changed more than what hasn’t. When you widen your focus across geographies, generations and behavior sets, you start to notice all that has actually remained the same.

In Iran, for example, people can get married for a few minutes, have sex and annul their marriage. But this is still seen as prostitution (because women are traditionally expected to be virgin when they marry) and people who have sex without this temporary marriage are still flogged.

In the West, marriage used to be a civil affair, casual events at people’s houses, and civil organizations marrying people didn’t demand that they stay married for life. The church got involved with marriage in 1215 in order to control the wealth of royal families and turned divorce into a sin. Today marriage is secular again, and divorce is common and accepted as part of life.

Brides wore whatever dress they felt good in until Queen Victoria wore a huge white gown for her marriage one day and turned the thing into a fashion item. Today we consider brides brave if they wear a tint of white.

Divorce has become common in Turkey (10,700 divorces per month) but it is very new for women in Niger (50 women per month in Niger’s third-largest city).

Turkish parents know (even if they don’t admit) their children have sex before marriage, but they still don’t allow them to live together before marriage. A lot of people in my generation are getting married simply to live together.

The examples are numerous.

The fact that families of today look different and confusing, or the fact that marriage is something only some people choose, or the fact we have sex before marriage doesn’t actually mean that marriage has changed significantly for the masses of people who still choose to engage with it.

The design of marriage and the laws around marriage haven’t changed all that much. More people may be allowed in it, less people may be choosing it, the accepted and unaccepted behaviors may be going around in circles, but the design of marriage itself - the institution - hasn’t really changed.

You may say, so what? What’s the problem with using an ancient design?

Absolutely nothing, if we are aware that we are using an ancient design. If we know where the design came from, how it originated, what it was meant to do, we can choose to use the design when it suits us, and not use it when it doesn’t. We can choose to update the design to meet our current needs, to make our lives easier and happier. We can even cherish the design and say “Oh look at this cute little thing humans designed hundreds of years ago.”

But if we are driving around in a Ford Model T not knowing what that car was designed for, not knowing that we could be driving a Tesla, or thinking our Model T would meet our current needs as much as a Tesla, we will be fooled and disappointed. And we will never drive a Tesla, which we can all agree, would be a shame.

I’m wondering how many of us are aware that marriage has an ancient design that is not meeting our current needs.

And I’m wondering why that is so? What’s stopping us from sobering up to marriage, choosing to use it when it suits us, choosing to update it, or cherishing marriage the way it was designed hundreds of years ago?

I believe what’s stopping us is our tendency to think that marriage has something to do with love.

Marriage isn’t about love

But, what is marriage about if it’s not about love?

Marriage is a set of rights and responsibilities we give to two people that allows them to take social and economic steps together, and makes them responsible of each other and of their offspring.

For me and my partner, for example, marriage means that we can live in each other’s countries indefinitely, we can work in each others countries unrestrictedly, we can accumulate and manage wealth together, we pay less tax because we’re married, we can take decisions on each other’s health if needed, and we can adopt children. It also means that the state holds us accountable for taking care of each other financially and emotionally, as well as our future children.

Marriage in some cases comes after love. It comes after feeling like you want to spend your life with this person. It comes after committing to each other for life. It comes after starting to live together, making long term plans together, or even having children. People around you already know you are together, you are in love, you are happy. In this case, should you choose to marry, marriage becomes a declaration you make to the state, and an obtainment of rights and responsibilities.

Then in some other cases marriage comes before love. You get married to someone you may not love, or even know, and hope to love that person as time goes by. You may never love them. Or you may love them, hate them, love them, hate them, and so on, just like the rest of us humans caught up in a endless flow of changing emotions.  

People were falling in love before marriage existed. People were staying committed to one partner for life before marriage existed.

Marriage started existing because we started owning property and we wanted to regulate how this heritage moves in the future after we die. And we wanted to make sure that couples who take such big social and economic decisions are protected and are held accountable.

Then over time, being immensely creative creatures, we couldn’t live with such a simple concept. And we created thousands and thousands of concepts around marriage. We created so many concepts around it, and marriage became such a huge thing that, we could blamelessly get lost in it.

We created stories. Dating. Hookup. Fling. Affair. Summer love. Romantic. Not romantic enough. Relationship. Serious relationship. A very long and serious relationship. Engaged. Married. Happily married. Happily married for life.

We created permissions. Permission to have sex, to live together, to bring the families into the picture, to throw a big party, to buy a house together, to have kids together, to call themselves a family, to take more risk, to feel more secure.

We created transitions. Bachelor and bachelorette, bride and groom, husband and wife, mother and father, or for the parents of the couple, maybe a transition into retirement after declaring their “job is done”.

We created transactions. The gifts the bride’s family buys for the groom. The gifts the groom’s family buys for the bride. The party, the DJ, the food, the cocktails. The gifts we buy for the married couple. The dresses and suits we have to buy just to be able to attend a wedding. The diamond ring that has become necessary step of proposals.

The NewYorker, Jan 28, 2019

We created pretensions. “A chance to party” when clearly you didn’t need this excuse to have drinks and dance. “A free pass to go wild” when none of this is free. “A chance to bring everyone together” when you clearly didn’t need this excuse to go on a weekend trip with a group of your best friends. The bride screaming into the phone “I can’t believe he proposed to me!!!” when she had been pestering him to propose to her the last five months and you all knew about it.

We created so many concepts that now when a couple announces they are getting married, we never stop and ask them “Why?”. We never question the marriage contract they’re signing that has real and very serious economic and social implications. We happily embark on this play of one concept after another and ignore everything else, so much so that the marriage of a couple often becomes something that is not really about them.  

This leads us to feel overwhelmed with marriages, even if we are not the couple getting married. It leads us to suffering when we pay loans for years for the wedding expenses, or when we get divorced and read the civil law for the first time, or when we think we “failed” to stick to how things were supposed to be.

More importantly though, we miss the woods for the trees. And missing the woods has just as many societal implications as it has individual implications, because marriage is one of the most unequal institutions of our day.

Marriage isn’t equal  

In every design, there are assumptions. Marriage has three core assumptions: 1. Sexual (romantic) love is better than non-sexual (non-romantic) love. 2. Being in couple is better than being single. 3. Being a married couple is better than being a unmarried couple.

We have come to believe that romantic love is the most superior form of love. We live and die for the infatuation we feel in our bodies when we are sexually in love with another. The uncontrollable lust, combined with a deep admiration. The desire to be together all the time.

This is convenient for reproduction. Or maybe the value we attach to romantic love is a result of our conscious or unconscious inclination to reproduce. Regardless of its explanation, this assumption creates a hierarchy of love. All that belongs to romantic love is put on a pedestal, and all that belongs to non-romantic love is secondary.

If two male friends who have been living together for 15 years want to be acknowledged as a household and pay less tax, we don’t accept. If three female friends who are non-romantically involved want to adopt a child together under one happy stable roof, we don’t accept. If a person wants to bring his only brother (or his only family member) to his country of residence to live and work, we don’t accept. If a woman who was never married wants to legally appoint her best friend to make health decisions for her when she is unconscious at the hospital, we don’t accept. If a healthy happy woman wants to live with her parents for the rest of her life and never marry, we don’t accept.

We tell them: you pay less tax only if you’re romantically involved. You can adopt a child, we can grant you a visa, or allow you to make health decisions for each other, only if you’re romantically involved. You’re deemed happy and healthy only if you’re romantically involved.

Then if you’re romantically involved, comes the pressure of declaring yourself a couple. We tell people it’s horrible to be single. We don’t tell them with our words maybe, but we show them in anyway we can. We discriminate against single people. When they are renting or buying a house, when they are paying tax, when assuming they can work longer hours because no one’s waiting for them at home, when they have reached “a certain age” without long committed relationships, when they are out to eat dinner, we discriminate against them.

We feel bad for them, or worried; we feel something is wrong if they cannot be committed to being a couple. And although we feel they are worse off than we are, we make their life (tax payments, work, living costs) much harder, instead of easier.

Whereas we have no scientific research that proves romantic love is not necessarily better or worse than other kinds of love, we do have research that proves single people are not worse off than couples. Single people are more sociable and connected than couples who are turned toward themselves. They seek both solitude and easy sociability, so they create the most ingenious living arrangements. They contribute just as much to society, if not more. Some single people are miserable because we keep reminding them that being single is horrible. They are usually happy otherwise.

Then if you’re in couple, comes the pressure of going off and getting married. If you live with the same partner for decades, that’s great for you but we don’t give you anything for that. If you are lucky, you live in one of the 10 countries that allow different-sex civil unions or in one of the 28 countries that allow same-sex civil unions. If you do get a civil union, we don’t give the same rights as marriage (such as adoption, a great health insurance) nor the same responsibilities (such as the same level of protection by the state).

It makes sense that there is different levels of commitment that give you different levels of rights and responsibilities. What doesn’t make sense is that we focus so much on marriage that we forget about the masses of people who don’t want marriage due to the expectations or pressures of marriage. What doesn’t make sense is that marriage, which was designed as a tool to help us live, has stopped serving us. We have become its servant instead, demanding everyone agrees to it, and attaching a stigma or a lower status in life to anyone who doesn’t.

To be continued.

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